When Real World & Online Competitors Don’t Match


As part of our onboarding process for new clients, we’ll discuss who they find to be their top competitors. Then we’ll ask them to give a rundown of how they see themselves as comparing to those competitors. These can give good insights into a market that, as an agency, we might not have intimate knowledge of just yet. We get a look from a knowledgeable insider as to who is on top and who is lacking in terms of pricing, product offerings, quality, etc.

But one thing that seems to happen probably 50% of the time is that the list of competitors the client gives simply aren’t the same folks showing up on the SERPs alongside them. How can this be? Why aren’t there match ups between the two and what should we do about it?

Why Don’t Online & Real World Match Up?

There are any number of reasons why your online competition doesn’t match up with your real world competition. Here are just a few potential scenarios:

  • Your real world competition isn’t running a full search strategy.
  • Your competitors could be advertising on a different scale (geographically or based on offerings) than you are.
  • Your client’s view is narrowed as they only reference the people they bump up against numerous times.
  • Competition can be geographically influenced and gives your client narrower focus.
  • Their keyword strategy could be off.
  • It could be a vague/confusing market for your potential customers to navigate, causing head terms searches without much detail.

No matter the reason, it’s important that you’re able to learn as much as possible about your real world and online competition to ensure you’re competing in the markets you want to be in. So what to do now? Below is the process I run through when the real world competition and online competition don’t match up.

Where is the Real World Competition?

Your goal is to answer this question: Are my real world competitors running online advertising?

The easiest place to start is to utilize a couple tools and find where your real world competitors actually are (or aren’t). It’s important to figure out why they’re not showing up where you think they should.

Auction Insights

First, start with the easiest and cheapest: Auction Insights. Both Google and Bing have a version of this tool and if you’re driving enough click volume through your campaigns, you’ll be able to see who is or isn’t showing up alongside you in the auctions.

Paid Tools

Second, although it’s not a perfect science, you can use online tools like SpyFu, iSpionage, and SEMRush to see if your competitors are doing any sort of search advertising on Google and Bing. These tools can get you pretty close to full coverage on your competitors, but they’re not 100% accurate. Take their exact data with a grain of salt, but the high level takeaways of “are they advertising or not” are usually pretty accurate.

Built With

Lastly, I try to check out builtwith.com to see what pixels they have on their site. If you can identify familiar pixels, then maybe they’re advertising and you’re simply not seeing it or they could be dormant for the time being, but this can at least tell you where they may have been in the past.

Now What?

After using a slew of tools, we’re back to our goal question for this section: Are my real world competitors running online advertising?

If your competitors didn’t show up in any of these tools, then odds are they’re not advertising and you have the opportunity to get ahead and in the digital realm. Mazel tov!

If competitors are showing up, even if on a different scale, then you’ve potentially got some work ahead of you to ensure you’re competing in areas that matter and not competing where you’ll be beat every time. Spend some time getting familiar with their strategies through these tools and see how that can impact your campaign strategy overall.

Who is Your Online Competition?

Now is the time you dive into a more “normal” competitor analysis. Take a look at the folks who are showing up in your Auction Insights reports and find out more about them:

  • Are they actually competitors in the truest sense, meaning are they offering the same solutions?
  • Are they a substitute or complementary product to yours?
  • Are they a specialist solution or a jack of all trades and is that different from you?
  • Do they compete with you on 100% of your keywords, only some, or very few?

Each of the answers to these questions can help guide you to make better decisions on how you position yourself in the market. If you’re a jack of all trades solution and you’re competing in some areas against a specialist, it would make sense to highlight your numerous features as you’re most likely not going to be able to compete on the specifics of their product.

Make sure you have a full understanding of who they are and what they offer before so you can best compete with them where it makes sense.

Review Your Chosen Keywords

Lastly, it’s never a bad idea to review your own strategies. Based on what you’ve found about your real world and online competitors strategies, where do you fit in the mix? Take a look at your keyword strategies and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are these the right keywords for this account?
  • Are these keywords getting us in front of the right users?
  • Are the related searches at the bottom of the page also relevant to our solution?
  • Are the users searching for these terms actually wanting the solutions we provide?
  • Are the other competitors bidding on these keywords actually competitors for our solution?

If you answered no to any of these questions, you might need to rethink the existing keyword strategy, or at least part of it, to ensure you’re competing against the right folks. If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you should be doing just fine.

So Who is Your True Competition?

At this point, it’s fair to ask who your actual competition is: those real world listed competitors from your client or the ones showing up on the SERPs?

For the sake of your PPC campaigns, it’s your online competition.

Regardless of how closely you compete offline, it’s those online competitors your potential customers are going to see and compare you to. Those are the ones you should look to set yourself apart from when it comes to ad copy, landing pages, calls to action, etc.

That said, it never pays to be short sighted. Don’t forget about those real world competitors. Keep an eye on them to see if their online strategy changes or if you can learn something from their strategies to leverage online.

Competitor identification is important and there’s a lot to be leveraged from knowing who your competitors are. Ensure that you’re focusing on the right people, only fighting battles where they can be fought, and always keeping your eyes open for new or different entries to the market.

Have other ideas about your real world vs online competition? Share with us in the comments!